With her debut novel, THE CONDITIONS OF LOVE, poet Dale M. Kushner has created a layered examination of love in all its forms and how it impacts and shapes one girl in the late 1950s and early 1960s from childhood to maturity. The book uses three sections to trace the story of Eunice from living with her flighty, distracted mother Mern to caretaker Rose to eventual lover Fox.
Eunice lives with her single mother, as her father left when she was a baby. She dreams of who he might be, and when he shows up only to abandon her again, she continues to idolize him all out of proportion. We see her young mind struggle with accepting her mother’s new lover, Sam Podesta. She imagines conversations with her father, as he expresses his disappointment in her for accepting and even loving Sam. Can she really love both her father and Sam without betraying one? Mern and Sam of course do not last, and Eunice must struggle with the loss of another father figure.
"THE CONDITIONS OF LOVE is an engaging story written in a lyrical style. It’s a stunningly self-assured novel for a debut, and it leaves the reader hoping that Kushner will write a second."
Mern and her daughter are separated in a traumatic event that leaves Eunice in the hands of Rose, a woman who lives off the land and teaches Eunice how to keep bees, care for animals, split wood and earn her sustenance from the earth. Throughout all of this, Eunice hears the absent Mern’s voice mocking Rose, as Mern and Rose and their world views collide in her mind. Mern cares for nothing but clothes, movie stars and passionate affairs, while Rose is independent and practical.
Again, tragedy separates Eunice from Rose. She is taken in by a foster family, but has little investment in the parents. She and Rose have a plan to run away and continue life as it was before. However, she meets Fox and begins to fall in love. She struggles with where her loyalties should lie and how to move forward loving these two people in such different ways.
The lesson Eunice must learn is that one love does not replace another. Life and circumstances change, and they change Eunice. Her father, Mern, Sam, Rose, Fox, and her pet, Eunice Turtle, are not in competition with one another. Rather, they build on each other and transform Eunice from a child to a woman. They are all inside her heart and her head, and she continues to interact with their emotional resonance long after their physical presence is gone. Rose tells her as she contemplates leaving her young foster care brother, “Besides, love has more staying power than you credit… you’re the good dream he can have again and again. That’s part of the Conditions of Love.”
This is a book that begs to be read slowly. Kushner’s history with poetry serves her well. Her prose causes the reader to slow down and relish the words. She utilizes the five senses throughout the book, which gives the reader a sense of real intimacy with Eunice. She beautifully recounts the physical act of Eunice’s neighbor, Mr. Tabachnik, putting on an opera record, and then she tops it by describing the powerful music washing over a young Eunice.
THE CONDITIONS OF LOVE is an engaging story written in a lyrical style. It’s a stunningly self-assured novel for a debut, and it leaves the reader hoping that Kushner will write a second.
Reviewed by Josh Mallory on May 17, 2013
The Conditions of Love